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Farming among the mansions

Max Sassenfeld harvests squash at Tani Creek Farm at the island’s south end. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Max Sassenfeld harvests squash at Tani Creek Farm at the island’s south end.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

A ‘biodynamic’ operation at the south end attracts young agrarians.

Three figures are out early in the light rain. Working from their knees, they meticulously pick grass strands from a patch of salad greens being prepped for the week’s harvest.

They work atop a scenic south-end hillside that rolls down into Rich Passage, surrounded by a patchwork of vegetables in various stages of growth.

And while this may seem like a cliché agricultural community, minus modern mechanization, an experiment under way at Tani Creek Farm has brought together the passion and imagination of these young farmers.

“It’s amazing what the earth will provide when you engage in the relationship,” Max Sassenfeld said. “I look at plants as more of a real being, their consciousness, their reality. We’re working with a living organism.”

While many farmers hold a close connection to the land, it is the foundation of Tani Creek Farm – which is experimenting in sustainable “biodynamic” farming.

Biodynamics is an organic method outlined in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner that treats the farm as a single living organism comprised of relationships between all of its parts.

Attitudes, life energies and the lunar calendar all influence the state of the farm as a being and the timing of planting and harvesting.

Sassenfeld along with fellow farmers Lydia Hall, Jonah Bloch and Amber Lippert, have spent much of the past four years working on farms in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where they honed their skills.

“The Nettle Edge farm outside of Eugene – that is what did it for me,” Sassenfeld said. “It was like stepping back in time. This family, their entire life was based on the relationship with their land and I just knew I wanted to pursue that as a lifestyle, staying away from cars, working for basic necessities, it’s such a more realistic way of living, and it’s incredibly healing on a human and psychological level.”

For Lippert, an agricultural education student at the University of Oregon, the call came when she first bit into an organic tomato four years ago.

“I had some trouble finding food that would feel good in my body and when I started eating organic tomatoes I was like, wow, there really is a big difference,” Lippert said. “I wanted to find out if it was possible to grow sustainable organic produce and I didn’t know unless I tried.”

While Sassenfeld knew he would be coming back to the island to farm, he didn’t know that he would be jumping into a successful, full-time farming operation so quickly.

“We weren’t intending for this to be an all-consuming thing. I thought I might be working out here under another farmer, so I would know how to grow stuff better up here before I took this on, but it just kind of happened,” Sassenfeld said.

The land was donated by Max’s father Helmut, a retired biologist who has taken interest in his son’s pursuit and pressed him and his friends to work the 4.5 acres of cleared land.

“While I was in college I kept dropping off environmental literature to my parents about how fossil fuels are running out, about the unsustainable ways our food is grown,” Sassenfeld said. “My dad was just like, ‘you should go for it, how many years do you need to work for other people before you do it yourself?’ So we just did it.”

The opportunity allowed the group to bring biodynamics to the forefront of their operation and work full-time on developing their own farming techniques.

“Bio­dynamics has always in the background, and if you talk to farmers they know what it’s about,” Sassenfeld said. “We’re using those practices now. We have made a lot of mistakes, but if you have an open attitude about learning, there is no end to what you can get from this.”

“We are very experimental,” Lippert said. “We want to learn with what we have and see what works in our environment. It gives us the opportunity to do a lot of informal field trials and learn about our different plant varieties.”

The farm rejects all chemicals and runs as a closed circuit, using mulch, ground shells and nettle teas to fertilize without upsetting the land’s natural balance.

Only six months ago the land was under a nitrogen-fomenting cover crop. Now, the Tani Creek Farm has informal arrangements with eight neighborhood families to provide weekly produce.

They also supply produce to the island restaurant Madoka, and are a popular fixture at this year’s farmers market.

“It’s been well received in the community,” Sassenfeld said “We were surprised at how well our market went. On the island, organic food is becoming a staple. It’s more in the consciousness of people that good local food is worthwhile.”

The low overhead of the operation has also allowed Tani Creek to offer relatively cheap produce to local consumers. The small farm is even undercutting some big local retailers.

“I ended up in Wal-Mart of all places yesterday,” Bloch said. “Our squash and cucumbers were way cheaper than what they were going for there, almost half the price.”

To Sassenfeld this is evidence of just how far farming has gone wrong in our nation.

“I came to the conclusion that farming is one of the biggest crises in our world today,” he said. “Food is trucked thousands of miles under this mechanized system that is dependant on fossil fuels and chemicals. You have Monsanto that helped create agent orange and now they grow our crops…”

“What (Tani Creek) represents to me is definitely a turn towards a more sustainable farming system. Ideally it would mean this farm would be one of numerous small scale farms all over the island. More land needs to be farmed, hopefully on a smaller scale and with good conscience.”

The infrastructure for a larger operation at Tani Creek is under way. Construction workers toil close by, building a barn that will be used for food processing as well as an eventual home brewing operation.

For now, the dirt underneath the nails of the young farmers is enough to reaffirm their passions and push them ever closer to the Fall planting period.

“I love it because I’m constantly working with life,” Sassenfeld said. “Everyday something is living and dying. It’s like a friendship, almost like a person, if you’re not with it and you don’t nurture that relationship, you’ll lose it.”

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